In my last tangent before we get on to the nitty-gritty of the character races, today’s post is going to look in more depth at talents, traits and feats. It occurred to me, as I compiled HD&D descriptions for a handful of character races, that I was writing for an audience of one. Without first setting the parameters of what makes a trait, what makes a talent and what makes a feat, the racial descriptions are largely meaningless.
So without further ado, let’s have a chat about the crucial distinctions between these three categories, and how they benefit all characters. There is a fourth category: spells. While I chat about spells in passing in the text to follow, we can spend more time on them later. Away we go.
The term “Talent” is borrowed from d20 Modern, although I’m sure it is used in a host of other games. In HD&D a Talent is a unique ability. Talents are to HD&D, what class abilities are in third edition. The ranger’s Favoured Enemy is a talent, the paladin’s Bonded Mount is a talent, the rogue’s Sneak Attack or the monk’s Flurry of Blows are talents.
HD&D calls all these abilities talents as a means of making sure that every class has the same number of class abilities. It is a matter of balance. Remember one of the goals of HD&D is to make a game that is more balanced than third edition, but without being so devastatingly bland as 4e.
Talents are gained depending on your level, not your class. You gain a certain number of talents as you advance in level irrespective of what class you have. Your choice of which talents you can choose is limited by your class. A fighter cannot learn Flurry of Blows unless he multiclasses into monk.
The progression for talents is as follows: you gain one talent at every odd numbered level except levels 1, 11 and 21. At these levels you get three talents. This keeps the fourth edition rational that the beginning of each ‘tier’ is more significant to the character.
A character therefore gets seven talents per tier, for a total of twenty-one talents by level 29. Remember that HD&D turns third edition’s twenty level progression into a thirty level progression. A 30th level HD&D character is the same as a 20th level third edition character. That means that (unlike fourth edition) epic levels don’t start until level 31.
Class abilities are only half the story. All races have a selection of Racial Talents that are available to them. Some races have more than others. The more powerful the race (the more powers that the race intrinsically possesses) the more talents are available. However, just because racial talents exist, doesn’t mean that your character automatically gets them. You have to choose them.
For example. A dragonborn’s Dragon Breath is a racial talent. At first level all characters have three talents. A dragonborn character has the option to take Dragon Breath as one of his three talents. Of course, he may then only select two talents related to his class.
So it’s a trade-off. Players must decide (at every odd-numbered level) whether they want talents that enhance their racial or their class abilities. Decide! How dwarfy do you want your dwarf to be? In order to balance all the character races, any powerful ability that a race has traditionally had access to, has become a racial talent. This will become clearer when you see the races in action in the next post.
What should a Talent do?
Talents should have their own obvious identity. You should be able to look at the text of a power and know instantly whether it is a feat, a talent or a spell without being told. Therefore I should underline some of the principles I am trying to stick to when designing talents:
- Talents are unique abilities. Talents are the sort of tricks that can only be pulled off by those that have the Talent. If the advantage conferred by a talent could feasibly be performed by anyone then chances are it isn’t a talent: it’s a feat, or maybe even a skill. Obviously, magic can duplicate most things, and a high level wizard may have a spell that does the same damage as a dragonborn’s dragon breath. Magic has succeeded in duplicating certain abilities of other classes in all editions (except perhaps 4e). It will in HD&D as well. We’ll save a discussion of the limitations and utility of magic for another post.
- Talents have unlimited uses. By and large, talents should either be continuously active, or available to a character at-will. This is their biggest advantage. The wizard may cast a spell that gives him +2 armour class for the next ten minutes, but the dragonborn has that all the time from his skin. Some talents work more like spells than anything else – the aforementioned Dragon Breath. These would work like spells and have a recharge time. However, talents should only need to be recharged where doing so actually makes sense.
- Spells don’t make good talents. In third edition we saw plenty of classes and prestige classes where one of their class abilities was to cast X spell Y times per day. That’s a crummy ability. Talents should not grant the ability to cast certain spells. I don’t want the distinction of the “spell-like ability” that we had in third edition.
- Talents matter at equally all levels. Talents should be written in such a way that they continue to be relevent to the character regardless of level. If the talent deals damage, then that damage increases as the character gains levels. If the talent provides another bonus then it should be a bonus that is just as useful for a 25th level character as it is for a 3rd level character. If talents are too powerful for low level characters then they should have prerequisites indicating the minimum level the talent can be selected.
Where do we find ideas for Talents?
Easy answer: we steal them. If you think about it, we have a phenomenal number of resources. We have all the abilities from the base classes and the prestige classes in third edition, all the extra abilities from the class and race sustitution levels, templates, monsters, bloodlines. There’s also plenty of third edition feats are are actually really talents in disguise and can therefore be converted. And then… there’s all the new fourth edition class abilities, a dash of d20 Modern, d20 Star Wars and even d20 Cthulhu. If necessary we can even go back and plunder the character kits of second edition. It’s not called Hybrid D&D for nothing!
Fourth edition powers may not make the cut; at least not into talents. The problem is that when you boil them down they are all the same: make a certain number of attacks against a certain number of foes, inflict some damage and maybe impose an ongoing effect. They are all so deathly dull! Some might get converted to spells, but they don’t have what it takes to be talents.
Okay, we understand what talents are. So what are traits? Traits (or Racial Traits to use a more accurate term) are the racial abilities that all races get for free at first level.
At first level, all races get two racial traits. These are abilities that epitomise what it is to be a member of that race. By and large they are unique abilities (such as the dwarf’s Stone Footed Stability), but the one thing they have in common is their power level.
Traits need to balance with one another, so the bar has to be set deliberately low. To put it another way, they can only be as powerful as anyone race’s least powerful ability. That means that any powerful racial ability – even if you might consider it a signature ability, like the dragonborn’s breath – needs to be classified as a Racial Talent instead. It’s all a matter of balance and book keeping. It shouldn’t impact on the character concept. Indeed it might feed into the roleplaying. Why doesn’t this dragonborn have a breath weapon? Why isn’t this hobbit as lucky as his friends?
It’s possible a race may have more than two racial traits available, but the player selects only two at character generation. If this is the case, I may allow the character to take a special feat that allows him to select a third racial talent. Racial Talents are about as powerful as feats, so this would probably balance. However, it should be taken on a case by case basis.
I don’t want the fact that “everyone gets two racial traits” to limit the diversity between races. I also don’t want one race to overshadow, or be overshadowed by, the others. Certain Genasi, for example, can change their elemental manifestation from Air to Earth to Fire to Water. When they do so they lose access to their two racial talents and gain access to two new ones. Still balanced, and yet also very cool for the player.
I believe that the concept for feats grew out of the second edition character kits. They were your edge, something that made your character just a tiny bit cooler than the next guy. Of course, second edition being second edition kits were just layered on top of everything else with no rhyme or reason. Characters who had kits were inherently better than those that did not. Balance? What’s that?
When I got around to truly modifying AD&D in 1998 (Neo-AD&D) and 1999 (NURPS) I created something that was similar to feats. Third edition took the concept to a whole new level. Suddenly feats were king, the shiniest, most imaginative and most useful addition to the game.
In fourth edition feats have rather lost their lustre. They are of limited use, and simply don’t seem that good any more. This probably explains why so many fourth edition characters have Quick Draw or Improved Initiative. They can’t think of anything else to take.
I want feats in HD&D to be more meaningful. I want them to be exciting, and useful. However, they can’t be too exciting because that’s what the Talents are for. Feats are support abilities, I’ll explain what I mean by that in moment.
In HD&D you gain feats at every even numbered level. So it’s talents at odd numbered levels and feats at each even numbered level. That means you get something at every level – no more dead levels in this version of D&D. In addition to a feat at every even level, you also get a feat at levels 1, 11 and 21. This means that by level thirty you should have eighteen feats.
Consider this. All thirtieth level characters have twenty-one talents, eighteen feats and two racial traits. Is this too much to saddle a character with? Too few? Too complicated? Something to bear in mind as we continue to explore HD&D.
What is a Feat?
Feats don’t give you unique abilities: feats improve the abilities you already have. That statement is key to understanding how feats work in HD&D. All characters have a Reflex Defence, you can choose a feat to make it better. All characters have hit points, you can choose a feat that gives you more hit points. All characters have class skills, you can choose a feat that gives you more class skills.
You won’t find a feat that let’s you breathe fire from your nostrils, change shape or grow an extra elbow. There were feats in third edition that did that (well, maybe not the elbow one). Such weirdo effects will be the province of talents.
Obviously, what feats can do is modify talents. So Dragon Breath is a dragonborn’s racial talent. It does a certain amount of damage, within a certain area; the damage scales as the dragonborn gains levels. The dragonborn can also choose from a host of feats that modify his dragonbreath in some fashion. They might increase the area of effect, allow the dragonborn to breathe a different type of energy, increase the damage of the attack and so on.
Broadly there are four types of feats:
- General Feats. These are feats that can be taken by anyone as long as they meet the prerequisites.
- Class Feats. Feats that can only be taken by members of a certain class. These feats would tend to be the ones that augment talents unique to that class.
- Racial Feat. As with class feats, you need to be a certain race to select these feats. The feats that modify a dragonborn’s Breath are good examples of these.
- Multiclass Feats. We’ll get onto these in a later post. Suffice to say you need to select a multiclass feat in order to be able to choose talents and feats of another class.
And there you have it. That’s the difference between talents, traits and feats. I hope that’s clear. In the second part of this post I’m going to go over how talents, traits and feats are presented in HD&D and how to read their entries. You’ll need to know this before we get onto races and classes proper.
One of the things I like about fourth edition is the colour coding that it uses to distinguish between powers and other facets of the game. If you see something in red you know it’s an encounter power, if it’s in orange then you know it’s a magical item. I’m going to keep the idea, but change what the colours represent – just to confuse you.
I have wrestled with the best way to present half finished rules to you. WordPress doesn’t quite have the formatting options that I need to make them sufficiently pretty. So downloads in this post, as well as the races in the next, will be uploaded to the blog as PDF documents. I hope that’s not too fiddly for you.
Here’s the PDF of the colour coding.
Where possible, I am going to set out each of these facets of the game in the same format. Traits, Talents, Feats, Spells and Magic Items use many of the same descriptors and so it makes sense to present them in the same consistant fashion. Everything is going to be a lot wordier than fourth edition, but hopefully clearer than third edition. Some facets of the game (like Skills) don’t helpfully lend themselves to the same format, but I will still try to make them as consistant as possible.
It is far easier to show you what I mean than explain here. So here’s my equivalent of the “Reading Powers” section from the fourth edition Player’s Handbook.
In this instance, “powers” means most of the options available to your character, be they racial traits, talents, feats, magic items, spells and so on. I know, I need a better name. Suggestions are welcome.
Anyway, all these elements use the same keywords and are indexed and presented in the same consistant fashion. They are also colour-coded (see above). First of all I’ll break down all the headings and explain what they mean, and then I’ll present an example gestalt ability that makes use of all of them. Are we ready?
Name and Type
This is the colour-coded band that includes the name of the feat/spell/trait etc. on the left, and the type of “power” on the right. So, if it’s a racial trait not only will the bar be in Sea Green, but it’ll also tell you that it’s a racial trait in the right-hand column.
I dislike the term flavour-text as it implies the content here is not relevent to the use of the power, and can therefore be skipped. I assure you that is not the case in HD&D. While the information here somewhat ressembles the fourth edition presentation (it’s in itallics and filled with light grey), it is very important to convey the nature of the power.
The entries here are longer than in 4e, and should flowery and evocative language. The descriptive text simply explains how the power works in words, without referencing game mechanics.
Nature of the Power
This is the part of a 4e power than would tell you if the power was At-Will, Encounter or Daily. In HD&D the descriptors are: Continuous Effect, At-Will and Recharge.
Continuous Effect: This describes a power that is always active regardless of what the character does. A dragonborn’s bonus to his armour class is a continuous effect. Feats and talents often confer continuous effects.
At-Will: These are abilities that are not always on, but can be called upon whenever they are required. Characters usually need to make a conscious decision to use an at-will ability. Many talents provide you with at-will abilities.
Recharge: Once you have used a recharge power it cannot be used again until you take a short rest. In this way they greatly ressemble 4e’s Encounter powers. Most spells are recharge powers, but some talents (like a dragonborn’s breath weapon) are also recharge powers. Some powers will have the moniker Recharge (Special). That means that the recharge time is not one short rest. Often they are used for abilities that be used more than once before they need to be recharged, but can be used less frequently than At-Wills.
Following the frequency of use, is a diamond (or similar wingding – we can have a poll if you really want). Then there is a list of descriptors that should be familiar to fourth and third edition players. These decriptors help to tell us more about the nature of the power.
Firstly, we reveal if the power is Mundane (a natural, non-magical ability), Magical (uses the Weave) or Supernatural (isn’t natural, but doesn’t use the Weave). If the power is magical, then the school of magic is also listed in parenthesis (Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment, Evocation, Illusion, Necromancy or Transmutation). At the moment, I don’t see a case for all the sub-schools that third edition had. I can be convinced, however.
The remaining descriptors are listed alphabetically. At the moment I have compiled the following: Acid, Air, Cold, Darkness, Earth, Fear, Fire, Force, Implement, Language-Dependent, Light, Lightning, Mind-Affecting, Necrotic, Radiant, Thunder, Water. Feel free to suggest more or demand less.
This only applies to spells. It gives you the name of the class that can cast the spell, and the level of the spell. If more than one class has access to this spell then all spells are listed. This is just like in third edition. So a spell might be “Wizard 1, Cleric 2”, for example.
Whether we include the full class name or simply an abbreviation largely depends on how many different spell-casting classes we have, and how easy the abbreviations are to remember.
This is emboldened and tells you what type of action you must take to use the power. This is heavily based on the fourth edition combat system. However, it’s my initial intention to get rid of Minor actions. That way each character just has two actions in a round: a Standard Action and a Move Action. That’s two choices instead of three, which should speed combat up a tad. I’ll talk about the removal of the Minor action at length later, so please don’t get too het up about it now. The different actions are as follows:
Standard Action: This is the meat of your character’s actions. Most recharge powers are standard actions. Making an attack roll against a foe is also a standard action.
Move Action: You use a move action to move up to speed in feet; to crawl, climb or swim at half your speed; to run at increasingly dangerous paces; to withdraw safely from combat. Instead of a move action, you can opt to take a Move Equivalent Action. This is something else that takes a small amount of time. This might include opening a door, drinking a potion, drawing a weapon and so on.
Normally you have two actions in a round: one standard action and one move (or move equivalent) action. You can trade down. You can take a second move action instead of your standard action, but you can’t take a second standard action in place of your move action. This should all be very familiar to third and fourth edition players.
In addition to these two actions, there are others that may come into play:
No Action: The power just goes off without expending any of your actions. This may or may not happen on your turn depending on the circumstacnes. Most of these types of powers are continuously active. Speaking a few words is no action.
Free Action: This is an action that happens on your turn. There is no limit to the number of free actions that you can have in a round (at the GM’s discretion of course). Dropping an item is a free action.
Quickened Action: This is an extra action that you get to take on your turn. Normally you don’t get quickened actions except in very specific circumstances. It works a bit like a free action, but it allows you to do something more significant. You can only have one quickened action per round.
Immediate Reaction: This is an extra action you take in response to a triggering event. It counts as your quickened action for the round, so you can’t do it if you’ve already had a quickened action.
Immediate Interrupt: This is an extra action you take in advance of a triggering event. It counts as your quickened action for the round, so you can’t do it if you’ve already had a quickened action.
Special: A special action usually takes longer than one round to use. The length of time is placed in parenthesis. Normally, this is reserved for spells with a casting time of greater than one standard action. For example, Contact Other Plane might have Special (5 hours) on this line.
If necessary, the text mentions how your Immediate Reaction or Immediate Interrupt is triggered.
This is only included if approrpiate. Some talents and feats might have prerequisites you must have to be able to select the power. Some talents might only work in specific circumstances (e.g. you must be bloodied). All that is put in this line.
If the power has a duration then it is listed here. The duration is either “instantaneous” or an amount of time measured in rounds, minutes, hours or days. “Encounter” is not a duration in HD&D.
Area of Effect
This combines the area affected by the power, and the range at which the power can be used. Normally, ranges are expressed in feet. The options here are:
Personal: Affects only the caster or initiator of the power.
Mêlée : You must strike your foe to activate the power. This applies to powers that use weapon or touch attacks that are discharged through a target. Mêlée powers can normally be used on the caster.
Ranged: A ranged attack targets a single foe at distance. Attacks such as a magic missile or a bow shot fall into this category.
Close Blast: This is an attack that targets individuals in mêlée range of the caster, and out to a certain range indictated in the text. The text will also state what shape the burst takes. For example, a dragonborn’s breath is described as Close Burst (Cone) 15 ft. I’ll get onto cones, spheres, cylinders and walls in a later post.
Close Burst: This is an attack that affects all targets within a certain radius of the caster, but not (usually) the caster himself. The radius is described in feet.
Ranged Blast: This is a distant attack that originates from a point indicated by the caster and erupts in a certain direction. It can also be described as a cone, line, cylinder or whatever have you. The description will include the dimensions of the blast and the maxmimum distance of the origin point. For example, a Flame Strike might be Ranged Blast (Cylinder) 5 ft radius, within 100 ft.
Ranged Burst: This is a distant attack that originates from a point indicated by the caster and affects all individuals within a certain radius. Obviously, fireball is the quintessential ranged burst power. It would be described as the ranged blast – e.g. Ranged Burst 10 ft rd, within 100 ft.
This simply states who in the area of effect are actually affected by the power. If the Area of Effect is “Personal” then the Target is “You” by default. HD&D keeps the 4e distinction between allies, enemies and creatures as viable targets.
If appropriate, this will tell you the sum for skill versus defence. For example, a phantasmal killer would be Arcana vs Will. A swing of a longsword would be Weapon Group (Heavy Blades) vs Relfex.
If the power does anything if you miss, then I say so here.
By far the biggest box (and also in a fetching grey), this describes the power in terms of game mechanics. There is no damage line as there is in the description of 4e powers. The amount of damage the power does (if any) is simply in this body of text.
It is wordier than a 4e power description and with good reason. The descriptions of fourth edition powers have a terribly soporific effect on the reader. They are really, really dull.
Normally this is only required for spells, but if there are any consumables required in the use of the power, then we say so here.
If the description is of an item or a spell then it will also have a market price in gold pieces.
So throw all these together and what do we have? Here is a nonsense spell that uses all of the categories listed above. It would be very unusual for any power to use them all.
That should have told you everything you need to know about Talents, Traits and Feats. Next we return to Character Races for full starting stats for the Human, Elf, Dwarf, Dragonborn and Tiefling.